Project 8: Does automation make a difference?

The problem with the set I posted yesterday – here – is that they don’t impart any of the anger and anomie I feel. In fact I am not sure what they say because they are not detailed enough to be a cold straight look as some of the kit I deal with and yet not expressive enough to evoke a sense of emotion. Yet in terms of the process I am not sure there is much difference in whether I create the image wholly manually or by using automated features in software. I said yesterday that I needed to explore this and I suppose one can’t do that without beginning with Walter Benjamin.

“The uniqueness and value of the “authentic” work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. Art is expressed in cult and ritual”.(Benjamin, 1935)

Benjamin’s argument is that mass reproduction replaced the nature of art and its attributes – purpose, authenticity and aura – with values based around exhibition and spectacle that distracts people and depoliticizes them, but more importantly removes originality from art by making it reproducible.

This is partly true for me. I do have an awareness that I will want to exhibit some of the work I create but I don’t believe that is driving my practice. The whole tone of Benjamin’s piece is heavily located within its time by its references to the dominant discourses going on then. For example, the references to Freud and psychoanalysis, the focus on sound in film and the rise of film as mass entertainment are talked about as new phenomena and yet these are old mediums now and many authors show how the rise of digital has led to a re-fragmentation of mass communications media where micro sites, a niche interests and practices (including artistic ones) can flourish. For example, I have a website that shows some of my work whereas in Benjamin’s time the option to exhibit may only be available to the rich or well connected.

Yet much of what was written resonated. How many of us live lives largely through visual media? We sit in front of the TV and PC and live our imagined lives through reference to and through them. Benjamin’s definition of art appeared similar to that postulated by Fry ie art is (it allows) the expression of the imagined life rather than the copy of the actual and form is the method of expression – and emotional response in regard of the subject matter. I believe this very strongly. Indeed the imagined life is the only life …..almost. However by locating this point with a political orientation Benjamin cleverly argues that mass produced art has created another type of imagined life – one that distracts the people from the politics of power and so subjugates them.

These points chimed with some of Sontag’s points in Regarding the Pain of Others where she argued that photographs objectify and act as a cultural memory laying down routes of reference, and serving as totems of causes and photographs help construct—and revise—our sense of a more distant past. In this way both authors can be seen to show how mass produced and consumed photography and film do not only record but distract, create and redefine and pacify. I agree with this view. For example, art in all its forms was heavily used by the National Socialists in Germany to create a collective national imagined life that referenced back to a mythical Germany in an imagined past.

However the argument has limits. Firstly, people don’t all react in the same way to change thus for example, photographers like Albert Renger-Patzsch saw industrialisation differently as did the Dadaists and art has been used to offer new views as well as promote conventional wisdoms. One only has to think of the way Sir John Everett Millais represented Jesus in his Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) to know this as the painting offered a very human real representation of Christ that went against the convention of the time.

Moreover while capitalism seems to me to be the dominant system for regulating relations (at least where I live) it has given rise to new technologies that have enabled new forms of art to emerge. These forms are not always in support of the status quo and so are sometimes the opposite of distractions. That is they can be seen as enabling subversion. For example, the rise of the internet along with the popularisation of social media and rise of the camera phone all have converged in ways that see visual communications at the heart of social relations between the state and the populace. Think of the Anonymous movement in challenging the expressed values of the church while supporting existing social relations of big business or, the use of modern technology in showing up the abuse of disabled people, or the way citizens protect themselves from state intervention by filming the police. This is also the case with artists.


Indeed many artists embrace all sorts of technologies and tactics that challenge conventional wisdoms. For example, Jenny Holzer makes projected statements Banksy graffiti images that all evoke questions from the viewer about roles and social relations – see here for an example.  Then we have artists such as Nechvatal who use algorithms in programmed art (Paul, 2003, P57) where the art may not challenge in a political sense but more in a sense of offering new ideas about what art is and can be and how it is made. 

How does this relate to my work?
The issue about the purpose and function of art directly relates to my work. Society has, and continues, to move away from the mass media culture Benjamin was concerned with and new technology being less a distraction and more a new form of expression. Photography is a mass medium, but we all take – produce – photographs now and so many voices speak through visual means one would think that there is a diversity of voices heard but in fact this is not the case. My work looking at the representation of women and disability suggested that the internet is dominated by quite narrow definitions and imagery. So we are now in a situation where we are offered the illusion of diversity in the digital age while in reality dominated by – in my case – a few quite narrow definitions of representations of disability. This is why I think all imagery is political:  My imagery it is both an expression of my life and experience and so inevitably is political because life is political. So I think I am saying that access to production has widened but we are still dominated in the way we live our imagined lived through cultural hegemony.

Automation v manual production
Do I think the method of production makes a differences in the sense of evocation? Not in the way Benjamin did. I can see how and why his points were made, but life has moved on and nowadays we live in a post mass media world. Many of us are still passive consumers but there are also growing numbers of people who use new technologies to produce and challenge mainstream definitions.

Sp does the method of production matter? No, not to me. Whether I use automated algorithms or manually process my images is irrelevant as long as I can attain my objective.  But who controls access to such technology and who governs how I can display it does matter a great deal.

Paul C. (2003) Digital Art, Thames and Hudson

Benjamin, W. (1935) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Sontag, S. (2004) Regarding the Pain of Others, published by Penguin


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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